The 2nd Dimension

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Viewing Journal: Monster (complete)

Series Overview
(Not yet licensed in US)
Bittorent Download

Overall= A+
Story = A+
Video = B
Audio = A-


This is just a damn good show period. Live action or animation, this is one of the best, most well-thought-out stories I have seen in a TV show in quite a while. And as much as I tend to spit this phrase out, this, more than any other show, is the kind of thing anime fans show non-anime fans to prove that the medium can be mature enough for adults without necessarily being perverted, gratuitously violent, or pretentiously esoteric.

Dr. Tenma is a gifted brain surgeon from Japan who is working at a hospital in Germany. When a he is forced to make the decision to either operate on a mayor who would bring the hospital prestige, or the boy named Johan who came in first; Tenma follow his principles and saves the life of a boy, but the events that follow cause him to reconsider whether saving the boy was such a good idea.

There's a lot to like about this show, and I could go on an on about the haunting tone or the mysterious plot, but I'm mainly going to concentrate on how the show really distinguishes itself. That being that it is so realistic. I mean, this is the kindof thing that could have easily been done in live action, but is done effectively and beautifully in anime. There are two main reasons why I think this show looks so realistic: the level of detail and the characters.

First of all this story takes place in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A lot of references are made to before and after the Wall fell and how East Germany had all kinds of nasty projects going on. Basically there is a lot of historical detail that makes the show convincing because you have easy reference points for when all the different events took place. More than that though, there is also a lot of technical detail given for things like Temna's medical operations. And later on when Tenma trains for how to shoot a gun, his trainer gives him practical advice like "Make sure to shoot twice to double your odds of hitting the target." Other anime I've seen gets lazy in this area, and usually just resorts to generic terms like "Just try hard" or "do your best". So that level of detail really fleshes the story out and pulls you into the world of Monster by making it more convincing overall.

The second thing that makes this show engrossing is the characters. Each character is unique in both their designs and their personalities. You won't find any freakishly big-eyes, abnormally proportioned bodies, or oddly-colored hair here. Characters come in all shapes and sizes. And their peronalities and personal histories all fit the plot but also are convincing and sympathetic in and of themselves. One of my favorite characters, for instance, is the ever-calculating Inspector Lunge. He has this quirk where he will move his fingers eratically whenever he talks to someone. He says that it's his mnemonic technique that allows him to instantly recall anything he's ever heard. Sure it's odd, but it's better than saying that he simply has a photographic personality because it's something that add a lot of color to his character.

Having praised the show thus far, I will say that there are a couple things that may drive some people off. First, this show is almost totally driven by dialogue. That's not to say that it's slow paced, it's just that there's not a heck of a lot of action so those who are only entertained by constant action may be disappointed. Plus the show is very realistic, so people who prefer their fantasy to be more fantastical best look elsewhere.

The second thing that may turn some people off is that the plot can at times seem very contrived and even predictable. For instance, at the very beginning Tenma comes out of the operating room after having successfully operated on a very famous opera singer. He's faced with the wife of a man who arrived before the opera singer. She yelled at Tenma saying that he was the best surgeon in the hospital and that it was only fair that he should have operated on her husband who arrived first. This is an obvious set up for when the exact same situation comes up a couple days later with Johan and the mayor. That time Tenma makes the "right" choice, and so the story begins. There are quite a few moments like that where something happens or characters will meet and everything just happens to fit together nicely. Whenever a scene like that would come up I just kind of shook my head and moved on because, despite those contrivances, most of the story plays out logically and naturally.

The animation was great... or at least what there was of it was great. Like I said there wasn't a lot of action, so there wasn't much to judge the animation for. The art itself was consistently high-quality though, so I really have no complaints.

The music was awesome. I've been reading the manga version, which is nearly identical to the anime. But when comparing the two, the anime sticks out. The main reason being the music which is subtle and haunting, giving the story a deeper and darker tone without being obtrusive.

As with most everything else in this show, I loved the ending. The final story arc was tense and thrilling and satisfying because most all of the major characters got their moment in the sun. The very last scene was mysterious and I think ended the show on just the right note. It messes with your head just enough to leave you thinking about it for quite a while afterwards.

So all in all, I definitely recommend this show to everyone who likes a good story. I haven't seen anything like it before, and I would definitely welcome more like it in the future.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Best Opening Animation

It's been so long since I fist saw Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight that I almost forgot how unbelievably gorgeous the opening animation is. And as far as I'm concerned, it's still the best. God, Yoko Kanno just kicks so much ass.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reading Journal: GTO (complete)

Manga Overview
Book Info

Overall= B+
Story = B+
Art = B+
Translation = B


I've seen all the versions of GTO including the anime and the live action drama and movie, and I still think this manga version is the best. It includes a lot of material that's not covered in either TV series, bringing Great Teacher Onizuka even greater challenges from the class that has vowed to either get him fired or willingly quit, and the faculty that despises his nontraditional (if not downright insane) teaching methods. The plots against him get more and more insidious, culminating with the introduction of a new school head mistress who is hot but who also redefines the word b***h. But no matter how badly his situation spirals out of control, Onizuka is always able to turn it into some sort of life lesson for his students where he is able to make them see life in a whole different light.

This is probably the crudest version of GTO compared to the others (not that that's a bad thing). The anime was cleaned up a lot, removing the references to Onizuka's extensive porn collection as well as his extensive group former biker-gang buddies who are involved in all kinds of shady dealings from drug trafficking to ... well, I don't want to ruin it for you. The live action TV drama did include references to his video collection, but even then it didn't develop that side of Onizuka to the extent that the manga does.

Actually, Onizuka's perversion is an important aspect of the manga because, even though the other teachers are just as bad as he is, Onizuka is the only one who is honest about it. And it's the fact that he is an open book about everything that wins his students over in the end because they realize that if he's honest about that then he's honest about everything else he tells them.

That's not to say that it doesn't get him into a lot of trouble. In fact a lot of the plots that are hatched against him try to take advantage that he is a 22-year old virgin who is looking for "love". I mean, you know that he's going to win over his students in the end. That much is predictable. It's how he gets to that point that makes it hilarious and unpredictable. That's because it seems like almost everything he does is just to satisfy himself of to save his own butt. Still, no matter what he does he just seems to be making it worse for both himself and his students, but in the end he turns the situation into a lesson for his students.

The art in the manga was more realistic than you will find in your average manga. The characters all have distinct and believable designs. Sure there are some characters that are generously proportioned, but even then the designs are believable. Of course, the classic trademark of GTO is Onizuka's facial expressions -- they are realistic (I have to laugh just thinking of the author looking in the mirror as reference material) but ... well just check this out:

The end of the manga was much better than either the anime or live action drama. Both of those just have Onizuka leaving the school after his job is done. While the manga has probably the most over-the-top ending, it's much more satisfying and dramatic and, I think, fitting for GTO.

When I finished up the last volume it was kind of a bitter-sweet send-off. I know there's the Shonan Junai-Gumi manga (as well as Bad Company and the associated anime and live action versions) but that's not nearly as good as GTO so I'm really going to miss it. Sure this has some crass humor, but it's balanced by a lot of heart and comedy, all making for a fun and unpredictable story. If you haven't checked out GTO yet, go pick it up. All the versions are great, but the manga is still the best.

And just for the heck of it, here's the openings for the TV versions:

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Viewing Journal: Afro Samurai (complete)

Series Overview
TV Broadcast Info
DVD Info

Overall= B
Story = C
Video = A
Audio = C


I first heard about Afro Samurai in a random article back in 2003. Ever since then I've been itching to find out what the show would be like. So I finally got a chance to see it on Spike TV last month and I have to say that it met all of my expectations.

This was a great show because of one thing ... the visuals. A combination of the character designs and the excellent animation made for some thrilling action sequences. Sure there wasn't a lot to the storyline, but who cares when you get to see action of that degree.

The budget for production was reportedly $1 million per episode. Now I can't exactly say that it looks like it cost 1 mil, but still, I can't stress enough how dynamic everything looked. From the camera angels to the expressions of the characters, it was amazing just to watch.

Of course, you have to be able to stomach an inordinate amount of violence because there is plenty here to even rival even the Ninja Scroll movie. But it's all so stylized, and the character designs and pretty much the whole general concept of the anime is so unrealistic -- if not downright goofy -- that it's hard to take it all that seriously. I mean, at one point you have a samurai with a gigantic afro fighting another one with a giant teddy bear head. At times it even seems as if the show is intentionally mocking itself, because through all the goofiness, the characters -- with the exception of Afro's loudmouth sidekick -- maintain their sober, brooding tones.

As I mentioned before, you don't get an extremely deep story in these 5 episodes. The main plot is just and excuse to move Afro from one violent encounter to the next. And other than Afro -- and to an extent his side kick -- you don't learn a lot about any of the characters or their motivations, which is a shame. The "Clan of the Empty Seven" is the best example of something that could have benefited from more depth. Not that I'm complaining too much, because there's not much more that you can expect from a 5-episode series that concentrates on action -- at least not without sacrificing the cool action scenes.

One thing that I was curious about though, was how they revealed the origin of Afro's sidekick. The way it was revealed didn't make sense (i.e., how could Justice (aka, #1) know that's who he was) and I can't help but wondering if Justice's line was just thrown in to make it more obvious to US audiences. I wonder if that line will be included in the Japanese audio track considering that Japanese tend to prefer implied -- as opposed to direct -- explanations.

One other thing that I wanted to mention is how some people will probably compare this to Samurai Champloo -- the other anachronistic samurai anime. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a rip-off though, because Afro has much darker tone and more of a sci-fi edge to it.

Overall, this was a great show and I'll definitely be buying the unedited DVD when it comes out. But that being said, I probably wouldn't care whether or not Gonzo decided to make more episodes. The animation and character designs were incredible, but that can only take an anime so far before it becomes tiring. I read in an article that the original manga author developed something like 1000 years of background story, so if Gonzo develops that in future episodes (assuming that future episodes are developed at all) I'd be interested. But if they continue with just concentrate on visuals without more character or plot development then it'll loose it's charm fast.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Viewing Journal: Kurau Phantom Memory (complete)

Series Overview
DVD Info (available April 10)

Overall= B
Story = B
Video = B
Audio = B+


I'm not exactly sure why, but this was an extremely hard show to review. I know I liked the show and I'd recommend it, and I'm pretty sure I know why I liked it, it's just that it's hard to put it into words. But I'll give it a try anyway...

First off, the show has an interesting and original concept. It starts out with a scientist named Dr. Amami who is performing an experiment to harness a new type of energy called Rynax energy. Something goes wrong in his experiment though, and as a result the body of his daughter -- Kurau -- is taken over by two energy entities of unknown origin, giving her super human abilities. Eventually Kurau's second energy entity manifests herself as a human whom Kurau names Christmas. When the government discovers their existence, they send out a special task force to eliminate them both.

What makes that whole concept so original isn't the plot itself -- there have been plenty of other stories about botched experiments giving rise to super powered humans. What makes this original is that it used that concept as a kind of allegory for human relationships. And as a result, it creates a surprising amount of empathy for the characters. Sure you may not be able to empathize with the characters' literal experience -- I mean how many of us have ever been possessed by an two alien energy entities, much less have one of them suddenly manifest itself as a separate human. But you probably can understand Kurau's loneliness and her subsequent happiness when she finds the one person she is meant to be with. The whole concept of "Rynax" and "Rynasapians" are used throughout the show to represent the themes of loneliness and companionship. And it works surprisingly well.

If I have one problem with the show it's that it doesn't give a lot of concrete technical explanation for what exactly the Rynax are. For instance you never lean why Rynax must always exist as a pair, or where exactly they came from, or how humans originally discovered their existence. The show only gives enough explanation so as to make the idea of Rynax work as a symbol for the human spirit, but it leaves the rest up to your imagination.

The last few episodes were kind of awkward. There's a final battle, but it's confusing because a lot of stuff happens that isn't explained until the next episode. The very end is satisfying from a character-development level, but again, I was still left wanting more explanation for what the Rynax were.

This show was animated by Studio Bones, which is responsible for such works as Wolf's Rain, RahXephon, and Fullmetal Alchemist. The studio isn't exactly revolutionary, but it is consistent. Most all of their shows have good quality animation throughout, and Kurau was no exception.

The music set the perfect mood for the show. Just listening to the opening (which I can't find on YouTube) and ending themes will give you a good idea of what to expect for the tone of the rest of the show.

So I'm not sure if I did the best explaining for what I liked about this show, but in the end I think it comes down to its ability to create empathy with the characters. Sure the science concepts are vague, and at times the story can get redundant (Kurau and Christmas are captured and escape like 3 times!), but I loved the characters and drama. The first DVD is going to be released in the US on April 10, so make sure to give it a try and see if you can explain it any better. ;)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Nabeshin seen on Jeopardy!

My wife told me about this crazily dressed guy who was on Jeopardy yesterday. He returned today, and when I first saw him I instinctively shouted "Oh my God! It's Nabeshin!"

The contestant's actual name is Nate Metcalf but his outfit was the exact same as the director and self-animated character of Excel Saga! The only thing he was missing was the afro.

And for fans out there, here's the real nabashin in action. :D